What a $16B state deficit means for SMC

Any hope for a respite to the continuing cash drought at California’s community colleges was dashed last week when Governor Jerry Brown released a May budget revision that paints the state’s fiscal condition in a dismal $16 billion dollar deficit. That’s up from the $9.2 billion deficit projected earlier this year, and means even deeper cuts to public services--including education--to make up for the shortfall. Additionally, that’s more pressure on voters to approve the Governor’s ballot initiatives in November that would raise taxes to cover costs.

Santa Monica College officials are crossing their fingers that the ballot initiative will pass. Bruce Smith, public information officer at the college, says that even with the deficit, the school will receive the same amount of funding if the taxes pass.

If the initiative fails, the school faces a $6 million dollar reduction from the state as part of the “trigger cuts” beginning in January 2013. “It would mean removing another 200 to 300 classes from the spring semester and severe reductions of salary expenditures,” Smith says.

The revision couldn’t come at a worse time for the cash-strapped school. Efforts by the Board of Trustees to augment course offerings with 50 additional self-funded classes were met with student protests last month.

Backlash from the protests caused the administration to shelve the program until further notice. A decision could come as early as the fall as the school scrambles to try and fund the winter session.

“We have to make a decision about the winter session in September, we need time to figure out what classes we’ll offer,” he says. “Can we go with Contract Ed, or can we go with another proposal?”

Smith adds that many eligible students aren’t taking advantage of the Federal Pell Grant Program. “Students aren’t using it to their maximum capacity,” he says, adding that the higher fees with Contract Ed would make qualifying for the grant easier.

Smith says that cuts in the 2013 spring and summer sessions could lead to “furloughs or other measures taken in terms of our employees.” Last week, the college announced a continuation of a hiring freeze.

Smith says that the school is still exploring creative options for raising funds. “Most of fund-raising is usually for supplemental purposes.” SMC has been able to save an average of  $3 million each year by cutting employee benefits and other services.

In an interview with Capital Public Radio this week, California Community College Chancellor Jack Scott recognized the dire prophecy of Governor Brown’s budget revision. “We will cut more courses, we will deny more people education, we will have no other choice,” he said.

According to Scott, class sizes have grown six percent since state funding cuts began in 2008. “We’re really packing them in,” he said. “Students are lining up in the hallways the first week of class waiting to get spots.”

Enrollment difficulties due to high demand have long been a constant gripe for students at SMC. Scott says that students who can’t get classes either must go to for-profit, private universities that offer classes at a higher credit cost or defer their education until a later date.

“We’re going to continue to do our jobs as best we can,” he said. “But we know that something’s gotta give when you cut back on the money we receive.”

Scott says that in the first year of cuts, community colleges in California turned away 140,000 students, and adds that today the number could be as high as 300,0000 students.

“The economy of California is going to be hurt, Scott said. “We need people who are educated."